The Holy Spirit in the West

My first year in university is drawing to a close. Still a few more weeks of reading and writing to go, but in my mind I am already appraising the year, and looking forward to the next. On a personal level, it went very well. I have still managed to work, travel up to Amsterdam, take care of the house (albeit not as good as I would like to), be there for my children and get good grades. It has been very challenging at times for my family and for me, but in retrospect it went better than I had expected.

There are a lot of facts and theories in my head that were not there a year ago. But these are not insights. In the last few weeks I realised there is one particular insight this year has brought me. It is an intellectual insight; yet, I recognise it also has bearing on my own spirituality.

The development of philosophy and religion in the Christian West has ever emphasized that the spirit, and the spiritual, is paramount. It was defined in opposition with the ritual, embodied side of religion. Paul, in the New Testament, could be seen as a starting point of this, with the complicated distinction and meaning the words “Flesh” and “Spirit” have for him. I find this is a paradox: precisely in the very religion where God became Man, did this complete shift towards the spiritual take place.

Even though material manifestations of religion were still very important in the European Middle Ages, there already was a inordinate emphasis on faith. During the Reformation, this emphasis on the spirit became even greater, and it permeated the western line of thought in countless small, but influential ways. This way of thinking led to the appraisal of the living tradition of Judaism as a dead religion, with meaningless ritual law and practice. Although many different events led to the Shoah, this line of thought – even if inadvertently – certainly facilitated the othering of the Jews. It also disqualified folk religion and spirituality, and the countless ways people are finding meaning in this world.

Even in the field of Religious Studies itself, this bias has been present. Only relatively recently have scholars recognised this: it resulted in this so-called Material turn and more attention to embodied ritual and religious objects (that can have their own agency).

This insight was something I had never come across in my years of reading about religion and religious history casually. I could not have, because I was so steeped in this point of view myself. I had such a hard time believing, because I thought believing and religious experience should just happen on its own, in the spirit.Yet, when I just focused on my intuition of the sacred in this world, and cultivated this practice, I sensed a thin, but tangible connection with the numinous.

There is still a lot of doubt. I’m not sure. Are these ritual acts and attributions of meaning my way of fooling myself there is more to this world? Or are they creating the space in which the numinous can reach me? Do I have to choose? Can I honour the Lady of the Waters, the Lord of the Woods, put fruit out for the landwights, study Kabbalah and still pop in to a church to light a candle at Mary’s feet? I cannot, I will not choose, which seems problematic from the spiritual point of view, and extremely problematic from a doctrinal point of view. Yet it does not feel particularly difficult to me. It is all about connection – and I experience it in the church, in the encountering of new ideas and in the woods by the river; and especially in my garden. It would be inauthentic to make a choice, because that would mean I would have to deny a part of me and my history. It will be exciting to see where allowing myself to pursue all intuition will take me. At the very least, I am blessed to have had the chance to confront my own blind spot this year.




Spheres of involvement

How big are our worlds? This question came to my mind when I saw a tremendous amount of trash on the parking lot by the station on my way to work. The parking lot is scattered with McDonald’s debris and cigarette packages. There are plenty of bins by the way. I know who leaves it here, it’s the youngsters that hang around here on their scooters and with their cars at night. No one can blame them for making their own entertainment. There is precious little else for them to do here. But I do not get the littering. If you’d say something about it, they would probably grin in dismissal. Clearly, leaving their trash here, has nothing to do with them, at least, it seems they feel this way without even giving it another thought.
It would not enter my head to leave my trash like this. Not because I am such a wonderful, responsible person. But I was raised by my parents and a wider social circle not to do this, and as a result, I try to pass on this basic decency to my children. And indeed, as they are now, I can hardly imagine them leaving their junk on the streets and in the woods like this. Yet, maybe these kids may have had proper examples. The more interesting question is: Why do people do this? My thought is they do not feel any connection to that place, and to their wider environment. Maybe they perceive themselves as independent agents, interacting with other independent agents, with no connection to the world at large.
Even though I do not like the littering, I cannot blame them for feeling this way. Our society only cultivates a connection to the environment in toddlers and young schoolchildren. They do crafts according to the season and play outside, but after that their involvement to the world around them wanes and other things are considered more important. Only lucky people are raised to more than that, through their parents or other role models. It is impossible to feel responsibility for something you feel no connection to. This is a blatant and obvious example of just not caring, but you find this behaviour among grown-ups leading decent lives all the time, and I hate to come across it in myself at times.

How big is my world?

I asked myself that question this week, when I was thinking about this and something seemingly unrelated: the human tragedy on the Mediterranean Sea. I live in one of those rich countries, these people are trying to reach. And indeed, up until now, even though I am by no means wealthy, I have lived a life of great privilege here. Yet I also know the standard of living is dropping in small, but insidious ways. Safety nets crumble. Not all of these people can be taken in, in the long run. Can we, the Dutch, or the Europeans at large, be held accountable? It is true that in many geopolitical problems, the West has a great historic debt and involvement. Yet I find it highly undesirable that we welcome these people in large numbers to our country. Not because I do not wish them a fulfilling life, free of want. But admitting people in large numbers, discounts the basic human truth that there is only so much compassion and involvement to go around. When we admit people in smaller numbers, they are afforded a chance at least to blend in, to make a connection to our society and be woven into the fabric of human relations here. In larger numbers, I see a big problem with this development. A simple example: all people that are admitted into our country, have a right to a council house. Yet, in the village I live in, ordinary Dutch youngsters have to wait for years and years in their parent’s houses until they are allowed to rent a place. The lucky ones, with steady jobs and a good education, may be able to buy their own house at some point. But there are less and less steady jobs to go around, even for the well-educated. I’m confident the anger of disgruntled Dutch people will not direct itself at the nameless, faceless “system”, but newcomers will invariably become the scapegoat. They are the strangers that are not involved in our lives, so as a consequence, society does not feel a responsibility for them.

A bleeding heart

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. For humans, it is often supposed to be around 150. Estimates from other scientists suggest it is higher, but never more than a few hundred. Of course, we are able to feel empathy and responsibility far beyond that number. We do identify for instance as being Dutch or European, and sometimes as human. But it is easier with people that do not look so different from ourselves and whose cultural habits we can relate too. I found myself questioning the size of my personal sphere of involvement. Well, that trash on the parking lot feels like my problem too. The fate of animals in the bio-industry feels like my problem too, which is why I am a vegetarian. I feel for the people drowning on the Mediterranean and perishing at the hands of IS. Yet, I am not able to care about everything all of the time. Some degree of selfishness and single-mindedness is pivotal to raising a family or achieving any kind of other goal. I have to care about my family first, than about others.
It is probably why contemplative religious like monks and nuns were supposed to renounce all natural bonds of family. This way, they emptied themselves so that God and the cares of the world could fill them up. Their prayers were for the world at large. Caring about everything all of the time is irreconcilable with an ordinary life like my own, though.
Yet I have a bleeding heart. My sensitivity to hurt in the wider world deeply affects my interactions with it. The thought of someone begging in the streets makes me less eager to visit a large city. I can only have a few friends, because friends mean I have to stay in touch and I need empty time, for my family, to do things that sustain me, just to stay sane. Experience taught me that this is the only way for me.
Some people have boundless hearts that can bleed but still sustain their own energy. I shamefully admit that I do not, and I am sorry to admit many people I know have even less. But we should never forget we are interconnected to the world at large, ans not shy away from the countless small acts in which we can make the world a better place. To cultivate a helicopter view of the world’s problems and the hurt that comes from it, is extremely uncomfortable but utterly necessary if we want it to change. How I am going to manifest this in my daily life, is a question I struggle to find an answer to.